Natan Kohn-Magnus
Natan Kohn-Magnus

Oh the Humanity

I recently finished reading the book “The End” by Ian Kershaw, which I highly recommend. The book describes the final days of the Nazi regime and the various factors which contributed to the Third Reich fighting on until the very end, even after it became unmistakably clear that they had lost the war. The book also reminded me of the movie “Downfall” (also recommended), which visualizes in graphic detail the same fanatical folly on display during the last moments of the war in Europe as viewed from Hitler’s bunker. 

When learning about these final moments of World War II (at least the European theatre), the most overwhelming inescapable theme is that of wanton and senseless destruction. According to Kershaw, more than 400,000 German civilians were killed, 800,000 injured, and 5 million became refugees from January 1945 onwards alone. The toll on the military was no less dramatic. More than half of the 5.3 million German soldiers killed in World War II died after July 1944, after the D-day landings and at a point when the tide had clearly turned against the Wehrmacht. These staggering figures drive home to me the extreme suffering that the German people, as well as the Jews, the Soviets, the allied forces, and manyת many others, faced as a result of the insane scorched-earth fight to the bitter end of a core group of madmen (for more nuanced explanations of why Germany kept on fighting, read the book). 

My first emotion is one of utter sadness. Sadness at the unfathomable calamity that befell the world. Devastation at the fact that so many people suffered needlessly, including my family and my people. But reading “The End” and watching “Downfall”, I can’t help but to also feel a sense of tragedy for the German people, who, despite having agency and often failing their moral responsibility to act, were nonetheless caught up in much larger murderous geopolitical forces.

The next feeling I have is one of guilt for having any sympathy at all for the Germans. These are the people responsible for murdering the vast majority of my family in the Holocaust. These are the people responsible for some twenty million deaths in Europe over the course of the war. The names Hitler, Goebbels, Göring, Himmler, Eichmann, Heidrich – are etched in my mind as associated with indescribable evil, nothing less. So why can’t I escape this sense of tragedy? 

The truth is that it was a tragedy, all the more so because World War II, like World War I before it and so many other wars before and since, was so utterly and completely unnecessary. The machinations of one clearly very ill and evil person and a perfect storm of geopolitical forces led to the deaths of some 75 million people and shattered the lives of millions more. Each one of those affected was a human being, each of whom represented an entire world of emotions, connections, spirit, and intellect. 

In these moments of introspection my mind can’t help but to wander to personal tragedy. Thankfully, I have been blessed with many material comforts that billions around the world do not enjoy. That being said, not everything has been easy. First and foremost are the family members I never got to meet, and the future family that was taken from me because of Nazi Germany’s crimes. Moving beyond that to my personal experience, having now lived in Israel for over a decade I have intimately experienced the horrors of war, the grief of loss, and the persistent trauma of terror and combat. 

But of course, it’s not only my experience that counts. Here’s one short anecdote to illustrate the point. 

Shortly after operation “Protective Edge” I was donating blood and the paramedic taking care of me was a very kind older lady. She asked me about the past few months; if I had been in the war (I said yes), if I had seen combat (I said yes), if I had lost anyone (I said yes). She then gently asked about the circumstances surrounding the mass casualty event I had been involved in, and I gave her enough information to get the gist of it. She then paused and finally said (I remember her exact words – I’ll never forget them) “Yes I was a medic during the Yom Kippur war. What you did once – I did fifteen times”. 

My experience reinforced my perception that Israel is a land filled with people who are living in a constant state of trauma. People who by nature have been forced to develop a thick skin since we never know when the knock will be on our door announcing that your family’s particular world has collapsed. People who, even in times of “calm”, may nonetheless be witness to things no one should have to see. 

My thoughts extend to the “other” we share the land with. Particularly in the context of operation “Protective Edge” I recall Ali, the son of Mohammed Deif, who died when the IDF attempted (and failed) to kill his father. I have nothing but disdain for Deif, and I wish the IDF had been able to eliminate him as a threat. But I am broken with sadness for his son, who at 8 months of age was pure and innocent and did not deserve to die. When I think of my own 7-month old daughter, who instantly for me became the most wonderful thing in the entire world, it becomes hard for me to contain my emotions. 

These experiences are all in the context of my experience, which as I mentioned before, has been privileged in many respects. My mind then wanders to places where the people are decidedly less lucky – places like Yemen, Myanmar, even my neighbors in Syria. Thinking historically, I remember places like Rwanda and Sarajevo – and how despite my hardships and experiences, I can’t even begin to imagine what those people lived through. It may be that suffering and misfortune is the most basic common factor of the human experience. Sometimes it’s best not to think about – it’s simply too overwhelming.

One last thought. As distasteful as it may be, I think about how it is humans and their decisions that bring about this constant historical torment. It was humans who gassed and burned Jews during the Holocaust. It was humans who chopped Tutsis to bits in a maddened murder frenzy in Rwanda. And it was humans who killed my friends in acts of terror and war. 

To be clear, this reality in no way justifies the heinous, despicable actions these humans took. But this is the reality, and to deny it is either pollyannaish or dangerous. I have often encountered a propensity by pundits, commentators, and even friends to dehumanize those who carry out these acts. Perhaps they do so precisely because to acknowledge their humanity is to feel the full weight of the suffering that was caused. However, as painful as it is, I believe it is important to contemplate why people behave in the ways that they do – even when committing unspeakable acts. I don’t pretend to have the answers, and often those who posit answers do so in line with a counterproductive or polarizing political agenda. Yet I still try to understand. I try if only to attempt to make sense of the immense suffering that is happening – every second of every day – around me. And perhaps with comprehension can come an inkling of an idea regarding what I can do about it. 

About the Author
Originally from the United States, Natan came to Israel in 2010. He served in the IDF, recently completed his master's degree in public policy and continues to try and contribute to the country that he loves. He is interested in things, and loves passionate but civil discourse.
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